Get Your Group Project Back On Track

group projectDo you groan when you enter a new class and see “group project” on the syllabus? You are already struggling to find time for your course work and then you need to find the additional time to work with your classmates on drafts, edits, revisions, etc.

It’s an all too common experience to be part of a group in which not everyone is pulling his or her weight. Even well organized student groups can see plans go awry when unexpected problems arise. Life happens – especially for students who are managing work, home, and family priorities – and we get off track at some point.

A lot of learning comes through overcoming struggles within a group assignment. What should you expect from the experience and how can you and your classmates regain focus when something goes wrong?

“Why do we have to work in groups?”

This question emerges every academic term from at least one student who would prefer to complete the group project solo. My current courses include group projects, and I know that they aren’t the most popular, but it’s often this experience that students mention (positively) in end-of-course evaluations.

Well-designed group assignments involve activities that require collaboration. FacultyFocus describes three categories of group assignments:

  • There is no one correct answer or solution.
  • Issues addressed involve multiple perspectives.
  • Tasks required are more complex than one student can realistically complete.

I would add to this list that group work might be:

  • Preparation for the workplace. It’s the rare job that only requires an independent effort.
  • A forum for shared experiences, as students with different professional backgrounds work with and learn from each other.

The collaboration is part of the lesson as students communicate, negotiate, and make decisions. The process can also lead to additional skills related to the use of collaboration tools, such as videoconferencing systems and editing applications.

The bottom line, as explained in San Francisco Sate University’s group work guide [PDF], is that in many situations, “you will learn more by working together than you will by working alone.” But reaching this goal isn’t always easy.

Common Group Project Challenges

Over the past several years I’ve noticed trends in the issues faced by my students, who compete their work (almost) exclusively at a distance. Here are some of the most common problems along with a few tips for finding solutions:

  • Too many time zones: Online courses can include students enrolled from all over the country, or even the world. This takes careful coordination within a group. Think about how project tasks can be completed in iterations of draft and review with those located in later time zones handing off the updated versions of documents, etc. to those in earlier time zones.
  • Missing in action: Is someone missing deadlines? Not returning the group’s messages? I’ve been contacted by concerned groups in the past, and once found that the student was “missing” due to emergency surgery. Most of the time though, this absence of action is related to students not being honest about what they can take on and how they can contribute to a project. Speak up if you are behind schedule on your part of the project and need help!
  • Procrastination and misdirection: Waiting until the last minute to coordinate a group project, often means waiting until the last minute to read and interpret the assignment requirements. Start early by making sure everyone in the group is on the same page with the tasks ahead, and leave time to ask your instructor for clarification on any items of confusion before the work begins.
  • Too much drama: Not all, or even most, group experiences are perfectly collegial in nature. Personality conflicts arise, and sometimes carry over from one course to the next. Maintain a professional approach and focus attention on the common goal of completing the project. The course and its group assignment are temporary challenges you will move past.

All of these issues can be managed through proactive planning and cooperation, but what happens when you plan and problems still occur? Once you’ve gone off the rails there’s really no turning back, but there are steps you can take to mitigate the damage and get everyone moving forward again.

  • Avoid the blame game. Pointing fingers and reprimanding group members may be the immediate reaction, but it doesn’t really help the group solve the problems at hand. Gather your resources and stay positive.
  • Review project goals. If group members have lost sight of where the project is headed, take some time to reconnect and make sure everyone is communicating. Identify where you are now in terms of project progress, and reaffirm where you need to be at the end of the course.
  • Reassess (and reassign) remaining tasks. How much time do you have left to complete the project? Who will be doing what? It may be helpful to re-think your approach and change the plan as necessary to make sure all bases are covered.
  • Ask questions. Your instructor wants to see you handle these issues within your group, but is also aware that some challenges can be alleviated with a little guidance. Clearly explain the problem you are experiencing, propose possible solutions, and ask for input.

A Team Approach

Consider working with your classmates as part of a cohesive team, rather than an unorganized group. Everyone on a team is in effect on the same side and working together to achieve a common goal. I use the word “team” instead of “group” in my courses and recommend activities that foster this approach, but you don’t have to wait on your instructor to take action. Follow these tips to build your own teams:

  • Assign team roles. This not only organizes who will be responsible for the tasks ahead, but also sets expectations. Roles should be relevant to the project, but could include project manager, spokesperson, programmer, editor, and more.
  • Sign a charter. Once you’ve identified roles and responsibilities, commit them to writing along with details about how members will communicate, plans for conflict resolution, and ground rules for participating. Signatures help capture agreement to the plan, which is then available for reference as the project progresses.
  • Expect to pitch in. Your schedule is busy enough, and when you add the scheduling requirements of others to the mix, the situation can get complicated quickly. Know that everyone will have a bad day, a bad week, at some point during the term. You take up the slack this week, and another team member will help you out a few weeks from now.
  • Use technology wisely. Take advantage of the tools available to ease your team’s communication and collaboration efforts (my students recently raved about Google Drive and Hangouts). Talk with your instructor to find out what may be available through your course site or school licenses. If possible, an in-person meeting early in the project planning stages might be helpful, especially if you and your classmates don’t know each other well.

Productive student teams rarely just happen. It takes time, patience, and practice for members to work together effectively and efficiently. Prepare for a bumpy road in the early stages, and be ready to react to unexpected problems as they emerge. At the end of each group project assignment take some time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t, and take these lessons learned with you to your next course.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog